Michael Aw: Sea creatures are sea life, not seafood
The award-winning marine photographer believes reconnecting with nature is key to alleviating the climate crisis.
Climate change, in my view, is a misnomer. What we are currently experiencing is a crisis, with ocean warming threatening the survival of underwater and terrestrial species. This is something I witnessed firsthand.
Two weeks ago I returned from an expedition to Antarctica where I observed what appears to be only 10% of the biodiversity that existed 20 years ago when I made my first trip to the region.
The decline in wildlife can be attributed to climate change which has forced animals to venture further afield for food. During penguin hatching season, for example, penguins must travel farther to feed due to loss of sea ice. This threatens the survival of their chicks, many of whom perish while waiting for their return. Seabirds also suffer, as changes in water temperature alter the migration patterns of the fish they feed on.
All of these changes are very tangible, especially in the polar regions, although I have also seen coral bleaching in the Maldives and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Around the world, we are experiencing more frequent extreme weather – just look at the recent floods that inundated Australia’s east coast, following the bushfires that tore through the country two years ago.
But now is not the time to panic. Although we are past the stage of reversing climate change, we can slow it down and give nature time to adapt. It is therefore essential that each of us takes ownership of our individual carbon footprint. Reducing it can be as simple as reducing your consumption of red meat, given that agriculture is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases like CO2.
In my work documenting the effects of climate change from the depths of the ocean, I’ve had my share of hair-raising moments, from being lifted out of the water by whales to coming face to face with crocodiles giving head shots at my camera. However, I usually don’t have time to react to fear, because getting the job done is of the utmost importance.
Financially speaking, I would say that the risk of not finding the animal – given the unpredictability of marine life – outweighs those of getting in the water with the animal. This is because traveling to places like Norway or Greenland is very expensive and I stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars if I come back empty handed. this has actually happened several times despite our knowledge of animal migration patterns and weather conditions.
However, we like to take people on such expeditions – with scientists armed with a deep understanding of animal behavior – because it allows them to appreciate animals from a safe distance, in their natural habitats. In fact, I’m about to lead a 17-man expedition to the Maldives to study shark species in four of the southern atolls.
I strongly believe that everyone should take the time to interact with nature and see how animals’ lives are connected to their own. The pandemic has done a good thing, in the sense that people have started taking more outdoor walks in places like Pasir Ris Park. Suddenly birds, owls, snakes, sunsets and sunrises became prominent on social media – Covid-19 did! I hope we can continue the conversation, to get people to fall in love with nature. Go swimming in the ocean and walk in the forest, take pictures of the otters – things like that are fantastic.
It would be nice if people could see sea creatures as sea life rather than seafood. These animals, from your fish to crocodiles and sharks, have their own memories. Having regularly explored the oceans since the 80s, there came a time when I realized that the fish I had spent enough time observing recognized me.
When I look into the eyes of an animal, be it a polar bear or an orca, I see a sentient being with whom I can converse, even if I don’t speak their language. Just like us, they need to rest and procreate; even something as small as a clownfish displays parental rituals in how it nurses its eggs.
Michael Aw’s Ocean & Climate exhibition runs from April at CDL Green Gallery in Singapore Botanic Gardens.